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Anthony Doerr On The Spark That Inspired 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'


Anthony Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 with his last novel "All The Light We Cannot See," has a new novel that ties together stories from medieval Constantinople, a contemporary small-town library held at gunpoint by a teenage environmentalist, and a spaceship in the next century. Let's not delay in asking him to read a section.

ANTHONY DOERR: (Reading) On the fourth hill of the city we call Constantinople but which the inhabitants at the time simply called the city, across the street from the convent of Saint Teo Fanno (ph) the Empress, in the once-great embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates, lives an orphan named Anna. She does not speak until she's 3. Then it's all questions all the time. Anna and her older sister Maria sleep in a one-window cell barely large enough for a horsehair pallet. Between them, they own four copper coins, three ivory buttons, a patched wool blanket and an icon of Saint Koralia that may or may not have belonged to their mother. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange, and never set foot outside the city walls. Before she turns 14, every person she knows will be either enslaved or dead.

SIMON: Boy. Anthony Doerr joins us from Boise, Idaho - his novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land." Thanks so much for joining us.

DOERR: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Scott. And thanks so much for covering books in general. Forget about my book. It's so great that you cover books every weekend.

SIMON: Well, they're important to us and to a lot of people. What ties these stories together of Anna, Zeno, Omeir, Konstance and Seymour?

DOERR: Yeah, the novel has five protagonists living at different times, and they all, at various points in their lives, fall in love with this story, a fable called Cloud Cuckoo Land, a fable I invented, although the writer who I attribute it to did write books - named Antonius Diogenes. But all of his books are lost. And this - it's a silly fable. It's about a man who strives and hopes to be turned into a bird so he can fly to this paradise in the sky called Cloud Cuckoo Land. And especially in the English language, over the past two or three hundred years, it's come to mean a kind of a fanciful domain, a utopia. But to say you're living in Cloud Cuckoo Land says you're kind of living in an unrealistic paradise.

SIMON: Hmm. And I gather the spark for this novel came from what you learned about the limited life span - let me put it that way - of ancient texts.

DOERR: Yeah, my previous book, "All The Light We Cannot See," is set primarily in this town called Saint Malo in Brittany, France. And it's got medieval walls, about 2 kilometers of medieval walls around it. And every text I would read about the history of defensive walls would mention the walls of Constantinople, which I knew basically nothing about. They stood for 1,100 years. They were kind of the preeminent defensive technology in the whole world. And yet in high school, at least in my high school, we kind of got to the end of the fall of the Roman Empire and Western civilization that we just leapt to the Renaissance and skipped over a thousand years.

And so I just started reading about the walls of Constantinople and how, among all the different kinds of wealth they preserved, was also books and book culture. And, you know, when you're young, you think all the ancient texts that we have were all the ancient texts that were ever written. And so I'm just so interested in why certain things last and what we can do as people to be stewards of - both of human culture and, of course, of the natural world, too.

SIMON: You have said that you - in this age of people being encouraged to write about what they know and from their own perspectives, you wrote you want to write about what you don't know.

DOERR: Yeah, that's right. I like to kind of write into what I don't know. I think it puts you on edge and makes you a little more alert, and you don't take anything for granted. And I think we're here for such a short amount of time - if you're so lucky, seven or eight decades. And I just want to learn as much as I can. And the glory of a job like yours or a job like mine is you get to chase these different curiosities all the time and spend your day learning.

SIMON: I want to ask you about both my favorite character and a character it was harder to get warm about. So let me begin with Konstance. I love Konstance.

DOERR: Oh, thanks. She lives in the future. This was a huge leap for me. And she's in confined circumstances. I won't give too much away. But she is a very curious person. And she loves stories, and she loves plants. Her father is a gardener in this spaceship. They live on this little community inside of an interstellar spaceship. And he grows fresh plants. And Konstance loves stories. So you know, the very opening of the book, her father's telling her a story. And that story is Cloud Cuckoo Land. And then you have to kind of wait until the end of the book to understand the long journey that that story took from ancient times all the way to land in Konstance's lap.

SIMON: And this is a human being who has come to be in space. She - her feet have never touched the soil of Earth.

DOERR: That's right. Yeah, there are a few people on this ship who grew up and have some memories of Earth, but the bulk of them don't. And so Konstance is told at a young age, she's one of the bridge generations. Her job is to keep culture and humans alive until they can get to this place they're headed.

SIMON: By contrast, I got to tell you, hard to like Seymour. He's willing to kill innocent people for what he believes is a pure and compelling cause. And all that intervenes is chance. What am I missing about Seymour?

DOERR: Seymour is a very complicated soul. He's one of the other five protagonists. And Seymour is in love with the natural world, but he's also radicalized and possibly militant. He's so sensitive to the destruction of the natural world. And there are parts of me in Seymour that - there are times when grief turns into anger. And so I was just trying to process the way I feel about the lack of wild creatures now versus the way they were around when I was a kid. And the baseline that gets drawn when you're a kid for what wildness should be and then when you go out and see it now, just over four decades, and how that has changed sometimes can elicit really strong emotions in me. And so just trying to process that and also process what it means for young people growing up right now, and do they feel angry at older generations? So Seymour struggles with a lot of that.

SIMON: So many of your narrators are young people. Why?

DOERR: I think I have several answers. My main one is that as I get older, there's this encrustation that habit forms over your eyes. There's an old proverb - habits are cobwebs at first, cables at last. And as I get older, I'm trying and failing all the time to try to sever my connections to some of these habits so that I can keep seeing the world for this amazing, astonishing thing that it is. And so using young characters has been a way for me to do that.

I think young people, as everybody knows, see things. They see it a little more easily. They adopt new ideas and new technologies a little more nimbly. And so sometimes, by channeling my own consciousness for seven or eight hours a day at my desk through young people, it helps me rip away the scales that have formed over my eyes.

SIMON: I want to read the dedication. (Reading) For the librarians then, now and in the years to come.

Librarians have been important in your life.

DOERR: Absolutely. Each of the main characters in the novel has a relationship with a librarian and a broader definition of what a librarian can be, a custodian of books in some way. And yeah, and my mom was a science teacher. And understandably, she was tired at the end of the day sometimes and would use the library as a kind of de facto day care center for my brothers and me. And so, yeah, the shoutouts to the Mayfield Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bainbridge Public Library - those were real havens. They were third places for me. They were a place where I felt completely safe. And just the miracle of them, there's something that - talk about peeling the scales off your eyes. Like, here's the work of all these masters available to you for free. And you can take them home.

SIMON: Anthony Doerr's new novel "Cloud Cuckoo Land" - thank you so much for being with us.

DOERR: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORY WONG'S "LILYPAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.